Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Death Comes to Strandvig by Diane Hansen-Ingram

 I like cozy mysteries. This was my first cozy mystery set in Denmark, and I throughly enjoyed getting to know the folks of Strandvig.  

What makes cozy mysteries appealing to me are the characters who populate the stories.  Strandvig has plenty of characters that quickly felt like old friends.  Lea is a young woman who is part of the Viking Swimmers Club:  a group of folks young and old who take dips in the icy waters all year round.  Bent Bang is a saucy senior citizen who doesn't lack for female companionship.  Together Bent and Lea have a sweet friendship that forms the center of the story.  

But of course small town life is fraught with the history of past relationships, gossip, and intrigue. You never really know your neighbors 100%.  Someone in Strandvig is a murderer.  

Who could it be?  And why?  There are plenty of suspects and secrets.  The people of Strandvig are having a hard time believing one of their own could be capable of murder.  I don't want to give anything away, so you'll have to read the book to find out what happens.  You will quickly become invested in the people of Strandvig;  their romantic entanglements and friendships will draw you in and make you feel like part of the community.

Rating:  7/10 for a promising first mystery in a series.  It's refreshing to read a mystery set in a completely different country.  Diane does a great job of infusing her writing with the best of Denmark. I look forward to returning to Strandvig soon!

Available in paperback and e-book.  

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Stir: My Broken Brain and the Meals that Brought Me Home by Jessica Fechtor

Here I am, again with the food writing memoir.  I can't help myself.  I've undergone a bit of a change regarding how I look at food lately, but I don't think it will keep me from reading foodie books.  

Yes, I started to exercise.  And with that exercise comes a new way of eating.  Minimal if no grains, sugar, and dairy.  I look at food and instead of saying "Get in my belly now!" (any Austin Powers fans out there?), I think about where the food came from, and how far from its natural state it has morphed.  I'm sticking to a high protein/low carb way of eating.  Lots of veggies, fruit, and meat/fish.  Struggling with the fish thing, since I'm not a huge sea creature person.  After 5 weeks eating this way, my guts feel better, and I've managed to stamp down my cravings for sugar and breads.  I will continue to eat this way for the foreseeable future because it is working for me.  I'm losing weight and I feel good about the choices I'm making when I eat.  Drinking lots of water, too.  I'm an emotional eater, and I didn't really discover that until I was in my late 20's.  Until then, I could eat what I wanted and nothing ever stuck.  Grief from losing loved ones,  as well as a work schedule that had me working all sorts of hours made my eating a mess.  Now I've finished school, have a routine work schedule, and the time to work on undoing the mess I've made of myself.  It's not easy, but I've seen a change and that is motivation to keep going.  

But--I still admire people like Jessica Fechtor who have such rich memories of cooking with family and associating dishes with special times.  I think we all have that--those cookies Grandma made; the special dishes Mom made at the holidays and only at the holidays.  Those memories and that food brought Jessica back from a horrible medical situation that could have killed her.  

Jessica was healthy and in shape.  She was at a convention, and running on a hotel treadmill when she had a sharp pain in her head and found herself lying on the floor next to her treadmill.  A trip to the hospital and a stay in ICU turned into a nightmare:  she had experienced a brain aneurysm, and had a bleed in her brain.  Surgery was required.  

Jessica's journey to health was a rocky one.  Even though that surgery was a success, she had quite a few setbacks:  partial blindness meant a return to surgery within the day to fix her skull; an infection a few weeks later meant another major surgery on her head.  Through all of this, Jessica's husband Eli and her family kept her company, encouraged her to eat, and willed her to get better.  She never gave up, and neither did her family.  She shares recipes in her memoir for dishes that have a special place in her heart, and helped her heal.  Some are as simple as roasted chicken, biscuits,  and pasta with morels and peas.  Others are a bit more  work, such as the Cleveland Cassata Cake.  

It got me thinking about dishes that I hold dear to my heart, and are the ultimate comfort for me:  chicken soup, scalloped potatoes and ham, chocolate cake with chocolate frosting.  We all have our favorites.  And they can heal our physical selves and soothe our battered souls.  

Jessica's tale is amazing and a lesson in perseverance, faith, and the healing comfort of home.  She's a food blogger, and you see the birth of that as well.  Visit her blog Sweet Amandine  to get some great recipes and see Jessica's life today.  

Rating:  7/10 for a tale of food, medicine, and home.  

Available in paperback, hardcover, audio, and e-book.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Tumbledown Manor by Helen Brown

I traveled to Australia this week to visit Tumbledown Manor.  A perfect beach read (or front porch read) that was a refreshing change of locale for me.  I haven't read too many novels set in Australia but I certainly plan on changing that soon.  

Lisa lives in New York City, a mother of two adult children, and happily married.  The story opens on her 50th birthday.  Her husband arranges for a surprise birthday party at their apartment, and so thoughtfully has a massive flower arrangement delivered to the party.  When Lisa reads the card, she discovers that the flowers were mistakenly delivered to her--and that they were meant for her husband's mistress.  Awkward!

Lisa is a successful author struggling through the second book in a trilogy.  This whole divorce isn't helping at all.  She decides to leave New York City for her native Australia.  She's starting over and leaves New York City with no regrets.  Once in Australia, she resists buying a townhouse in Castlemaine and instead buys Trumperton Manor, a falling-down house surrounded by neglected grounds and a spooky stable.  She has a connection to the house; her grandfather's family built the place and lived there.  In this space she will write her novel, and figure out her new life. 

There are plenty of characters in this novel that make it a fun read:  the Grey Army; a group of retirees who descend on the house to paint, rebuild, and refinish the home; Lisa's sister Maxine who is constantly bossy; Scott, the very handsome and slightly goofy landscaper who sets Lisa's heart racing; Lisa's son Ted and daughter Portia.  And of course her ex-husband Jake makes an appearance.  Lisa is surrounded by a great family and community.

Tuck this one into your beach bag or your purse when you take your vacation.

Rating:  7/10 for an enjoyable read with likable characters and a beautiful setting.  

Available in paperback and e-book.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Sour Grapes by Rachel Goodman

Sometimes a girl just has to read a romance.  And this romance, book 2 in the Blue Plate series by Rachel Goodman, has a prickly heroine and a super hot hero.  It was a really good contemporary romance.  

Margaret lives in Dallas, and is a party planner for the very wealthy.  Her mother is quite possibly the most unpleasant woman I've come across in a story in quite some time.  Margaret can never do anything right. Ever.  She's bruised from a recent breakup and unhappy with life.  She decides to get away from it all by traveling to her grandmother's bed and breakfast for a vacation.

Enter Ryan.  He's pretty impressive, and the sparks fly between him and Margaret.  Margaret is quite a pill and snippy with Ryan, who owns a vineyard next door to her grandmother's B&B.  She's uptight and unhappy, and Ryan's upbeat personality pushes her to examine her life.  Margaret's grandmother keeps her busy around the B&B changing sheets and cleaning the place, but Margaret has plans to make over the B&B and promote it to help her grandmother through a financial pinch.  But she's determined to go back to Dallas, even with her feelings for Ryan growing deeper the longer she stays.  

I didn't feel I missed anything not reading the first book in this series.  I liked knowing Margaret from this book and not coming to it already knowing  Margaret, especially because in the first book, Margaret is the girlfriend who isn't the "one".  Her pain from this breakup pushes her to make changes to her life in Sour Grapes, and her past comes full circle at the end of this romance.

Rachel Goodman writes a lively, engaging, and fun romance.  There is a definite big wallop of chemistry between Ryan and Margaret, and you can't help but cheer them on to a happy ending.  I hope the author writes more romances in this series and includes a glimpse of Ryan and Margaret.  

Thank you to Simon & Schuster for a review copy of this romance.  

Make sure you have a bottle of wine while you read this in your summer reading space!

Rating:  8/10 for an entertaining romance with a not-so-perfect heroine, a super hot hero, engaging secondary characters, and the mother from hell.  

Available as an e-book the week of May 23rd.  

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The Poisoner's Handbook by Deborah Blum

I'm getting ready to talk about this book to fellow associates at work tomorrow (Thursday).  It's one of the few books I've reread; plus I bought the PBS DVD and have watched that twice.  My fascination with the many ways people die is a strange part of my personality that I just can't deny.  Forensics have always interested me, and this book is a sure hit for anyone who is a fan of chemistry, medicine, forensics,  true crime, and the history of New York City.

Dr. Charles Norris was appointed the Chief Medical Examiner of New York City in 1918, following an outcry from the legislative bodies of the state of New York.  Too many people were being murdered by poisons, and the coroners were complete incompetents.  Usually coroners were undertakers, barkeeps, lawyers, disbarred doctors, and sometimes even shopkeepers.  They took bribes from any and all, altered death certificates, and often times showed up drunk to a crime scene.  There was no procedure, and toxicology was not practiced.  It was quite easy to get away with murder in New York City.  

Dr. Norris was a different bird.  A wealthy and brilliant doctor with high standards, he hired Alexander Gettler as his chief toxicologist, and began the process of building a forensic department in New York City.  These two men were quite simply willing to go to great lengths to prove a cause of death.  Dr. Norris demanded standards for death scenes, taught police the proper protocol for crime scenes, and refused to play the bribe game. Gettler devoted his life to developing tests to accurately measure different poisons in the body, and what these poisons did to people.  His testimony at trials often times was the deciding factor in sending someone to the electric chair, or sparing an innocent life.  

Each chapter is about a different poison:  wood alcohol, carbon monoxide, arsenic, thallium, radiation.  A big portion of the book discusses the disaster of prohibition, and the increase in alcohol deaths that ravaged the city of New York.  The stuff people drank to get a buzz was truly horrifying, with equally horrifying results.  

I love this book.  It was first published in 2010 and I could swear I published a review on it years ago--but no luck finding it on my blog.  This would make an excellent Father's Day gift for your favorite history buff or armchair detective.  Or who knows?  Give it to a budding young scientist and you never know--she may become a toxicologist.  

Available in paperback, audio, and e-book format.  You can also buy the DVD from PBS or your local bookstore.  I bought mine from Barnes and Noble.  

Rating:  9/10 for an excellent science book that is neither boring or slow.  It will keep you turning the pages, cheering on Norris and Gettler.  Almost 100 years after the founding of the New York Medical Examiner's Office, look how far we've come, thanks to these two pioneers.  

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War by Karen Abbott (Audio Review)

I have a huge interest in the Civil War; especially the women who lived during such a turbulent time.  If I could do my education all over again, I would probably continue studying Civil War America, and most definitely would pursue a doctorate with a concentration in women of the South.  

But life took me in another direction.  So  instead I'll be content reading interesting books like Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy  by Karen Abbott.  What an enormous amount of work Karen Abbot much have put into this history book about four women:  Elizabeth Van Lew, Emma Edmonds, Belle Boyd, and Rose Greenhow.  These women were spies during the Civil War, and what they did was nothing short of amazing.  

Elizabeth Van Lew was a wealthy spinster in Richmond, VA.  Her family were abolitionists, and she ran a huge spy ring for the North during the years of the Civil War (1861-65).  Using her inheritance, she bought slaves and set them free, often having them work as paid house staff.  She sent her freed (no one knew outside the home her "slaves" were actually freed people)servant Mary Bowser to the Confederate White House to work for Jefferson Davis.  Mary Bowser was another famous spy for the North.  She saved countless Union soldiers from horrific prison conditions by helping to maintain a vast underground system to move escaped Union prisoners back to Washington D.C..  All of this under the ever-increasing animosity of her fellow Richmond citizens, who knew she was a Union sympathizer and ostracized her in Richmond society.  

Emma Edmonds was a Canadian who joined the Michigan forces for the Union and disguised herself as a man quite successfully from 1861-63.  She took part in battles, was recruited as a spy, and kept her secret the whole time.  She only finally "deserted" the army when she came down with malaria and knew she needed to get to a hospital.  Her only recourse was to leave her male identity behind and start life over again as a female nurse. 

Belle Boyd was a young 17 year old Rebel who shot a Union soldier for harassing her mother in their home.  She used her coquettish ways, womanly wiles, and sweet talk to carry messages to Stonewall Jackson's camp; send troop movement information to various generals, and spent time in a Union prison after being caught with suspicious documents.  She was defiant and didn't try to hide her affection for the Southern cause from anyone.  

Rose Greenhow was a widower living in Washington, D.C. with her young daughter Rose.  She used her position in Washington society to spy for the Confederates, pass information she charmed out of Union generals along to Southern contacts, and also spent time in a Union prison for spying.   She even had Alan Pinkerton tailing her around Washington and peeking in her windows.  

Each of these women were remarkable in their fierce devotion to their beliefs, even if they were on opposite sides.  We sometimes forget how ingenious women can be when placed within the strictures of societal norms.  Emma may have been the only one to see actual fighting, but they were all in a dangerous game that could have seen them all shot or hung if convicted of spying.  They used all their smarts, wits, and charm to work around the system and made a large impact on both sides of the Civil War.  Battles were fought and won because of these women.  Men were saved because of these women.  

I listened to the audio of this book and thoroughly enjoyed it.  A mixture of diary entries, letters, and newspaper articles give this a strong historical background, yet it was never tedious or dull.   I loved it!  

Rating:  8/10 for a look at four remarkable women who stood up for what they believed in and never wavered in their fight for their cause.  

Available in hardcover, paperback, e-book, and audio.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Margherita's Notebook: A Novel of Temptation by Elisabetta Flumeri & Gabriella Giacometti

This was a fun novel to read.  First published in Italy, it's due to be published in the United States this summer.  I was able to read a preview copy, and it set me up to read more of what I call "lighthearted" romantic foodie novels for the summer.  I can't help it.  I have such a soft spot for this type of genre.  They are my go to when I need a mental break and some space between heavier reads.  

Margherita's Notebook is about, you guessed it--Margherita.  She's a young woman who is living in a dismal apartment in Rome with her husband Francesco and her menagerie of pets.  Married for five years, she has moved away from her hometown of Roccafitta  to Rome in hopes of her husband finding his dream job.  Instead, he struggles to find a job and Margherita isn't doing what she loves most:  cooking.  

Margherita finds out her husband has been unfaithful, and packs up her pets and moves back to Roccafitta, her hometown.  She moves back into her father Armando's home, and is so happy to be back in the town she loves.  Cooking is Margherita's way of working through problems, and right now she has to find a job.  A chance encounter between an octopus and a very handsome man send her world into a tailspin.  Nicola is quite the hottie; a ruthless businessman, with eyes like chocolate that send a zing through Margherita.  He's also annoying, and eats frozen food.  Needing a job, Margherita agrees to make suppers for Nicola while he woos local landowners into selling their properties for a huge wine making production.  

This is a novel of crisp visualizations, flowery expressions, and lust.  It is very much an Italian novel, and I loved the unapologetic burst of passion, life, and love it sends to the reader.  My only issue was Margherita's marriage.  It was never discussed with Nicola, and while her husband does make a brief appearance to try and win her back, it seemed that maybe she should have just had a relationship that didn't work out instead of a marriage.  

The cast of characters are lively and fun, and of course there is the woman who wants Nicola--his assistant, Carla.  She's all business, except when she's fantasizing about Nicola.  And she doesn't like Margherita.  

I certainly enjoyed my trip to Italy, the fabulous food, and the peek into small town Italian life.  A perfect summer read.  

Rating;  7/10 for pure escapism, and a novel that makes you itch to get in the kitchen.  

Available in paperback and e-book at the end of July, 2016.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Bring on the Outdoor Reading Space! Upcoming Reviews for May

I have been so busy!  I started a 6 week work out program and it's taking up three nights of my week...that's three nights I don't get to read.  I work out, go home, have a protein recovery drink, take a bath, and crash into bed.  I'm lucky to squeeze in 3 pages before I shut off the light.  

But, the wonderful spring weather here in Iowa has been lifting my mood, and making me itchy to be sitting outside on my porch reading. With a May chock-full of social activities, I'll be squeezing in reading where and when I can!  Without further ado, here are upcoming books I'll be reviewing in May:

The reviews are in no particular order, and of course there may be a few additions in the mix.  Stay tuned!